Sometimes it's a loud bang, like a car's backfire. Sometimes it's the sound of children screaming or crying. Sometimes it's the benign drone of a classroom lecture, or a stranger's ill-informed comments about the war in Iraq, or the drive over a bridge in the dark of night. All are triggers that send Jesus Bocanegra's mind straight back to the hot, dusty streets of Tikrit, where he and his unit of cavalry scouts tore down Iraqi flags and monuments and raided homes searching for weapons caches, civilian soldiers, and Saddam Hussein himself.
It was a tour of duty that Bocanegra, now 24, unemployed and suffering a 100-percent disability from post-traumatic stress disorder, signed on for willingly, but wishes he hadn't. When he joined the Army in 2000, it was a way out of his small Mexican border town of McAllen, Texas, he says, and a future of flipping burgers. After a year in Ft. Hood and another in Korea, Bocanegra liked military life well enough to reenlist. But his plan "backfired," he notes. Within a month, he was shipped out to Iraq.
As a scout, Bocanegra says, you're trained to be the eyes and ears of the mission commander--"You look for the enemy, spot them, and report back." But in Iraq, his job was different. "My initial thought was that we'd be fighting people in uniform." What he found instead was a lack of mission, little planning, and an elusive, often invisible, enemy. All of which left him questioning the war's meaning, sowed the seeds of…